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Celebrating a History of Remarkable Scholars

By Dafna V. Hochman, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

There is no definitive black student life at Harvard in 1998.

According to Black Student Association Vice President Dionne A. Fraser '99, "With integration and mixing of cultures that have become the norm there is no one black experience."

Increased cultural diversity and awareness on the contemporary campus have lead to a broader student experience says Fraser.

"Forty years ago, being black just meant being an outsider to the rest of the student body and sticking together out of necessity," says Fraser, "Today we are not as terrorized as before and blacks have a lot of different agendas."

According to the Crimson Key Guide, next year's graduating class will be eight percent African American, an impressive figure when viewed in historical context.

In the almost 130 years since the first black student, Richard T. Greener 1870, graduated from Harvard College, being black at Harvard has often required the challenging and difficult balancing of identities.

Although in the late nineteenth century black students were few in numbers, those that did attend the College went on to become intellectual and historical figures. W.E.B. Dubois 1890, a philosophy student, formed close relationships with his professors, Harvard luminaries such as William James and George Santayana.

Despite his reverence for academic life at Harvard, an institution he once called a "great institution of learning," Du Bois, who was one of five student commencement speakers, was happy at Harvard only because he accepted the extreme racial segregation.

"The shadow of insult fell," said Du Bois in his essay, "A Negro Student At Harvard At The End of The Nineteenth Century," of being mistaken for a servant. Turned away from local barbershops, refused lodging by families who habitually hosted white students and excluded from various activities such as the Glee Club, Du Bois focussed on academic achievement while coping with the many facets of on campus racism.

Other pioneering black students in the contemporary era experienced similarly racist attitudes at the College, along with a sharp sense of isolation. In "Travels With Charlie: In Search of Afro-America" Herbert W. Nickens '69 recalled his painful adjustment freshman year.

"Being black exacerbated the already difficult... adjustment," Nickens said. "We often bore the burden of being cultural and anthropological curiosities...inspected, sometimes devaluated, frequently overvalued, but never regarded in absence of the black factor."

By the early twentieth century, more black students were attending the College than in DuBois's time, but according to alumni accounts, increased admissions didn't signal a change in attitudes. Although many students recalled being accepted by their peers-- joining the Debating Society and various student councils--African Americans faced growing racism on campus among the faculty and administration.

In 1921, President Lawrence A. Low- ell--who had just instituted compulsorydormitory living for first-years--barred blackstudents from the dorms. According to Lowell, themeasure was designed to placate Southern studentswho might have experienced "discomfort" by livingin such close quarters with black students.

"We have felt from the beginning the necessityof not including colored men...of not compellingmen of different races to reside together," saidLowell in a letter to an alumna at the time of thedecision.

The Harvard community--students, staff, alumni;even the Board of Overseers--were shocked.

"Deep is the... shame and humiliation ofHarvard's recent surrender to Bourbon South," saidDu Bois of the measure.

In 1922, 145 Harvard first-years, guided by agroup of white upperclassmen, signed a petitionprotesting Lowell's prejudicial policy.

"If any young man should decline to comebecause of this prejudice against some possiblecomrade, I would say that the college was well ridof so narrow minded a youth," said one outragedgraduate of the policy.

By the next year the Harvard Board ofOverseers, which included future presidentFranklin D. Roosevelt, unanimously overruledLowell's exclusion of blacks from first-yeardorms. The reversal was intended, according to theBoard, as an appeal to the ideal of "equalopportunity for all, regardless of race orreligion."

Over the course of the next 70 years, clashesconcerning the function of race on campus haveexpanded to include scholarly debate and broadsocial activism. In the 1960s, the Afro-AmericanStudies Department was created, attracting suchluminaries as Professor of Afro-American Studiesand History Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Professorof Afro-American Studies and Philosophy K. AnthonyAppiah and W.E.B. DuBois Professor of theHumanities Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Now, unlike in previous generations, studentsat the College describe being black at Harvard asmore of an individual experience.

"I definitely know that every person is not thesame," says Mark A. Price '99, the president ofthe Black Men's Forum, "Taking part in the blackcommunity, attending black parties, sitting in the`black table' gives me a different collegeexperience than other people. But that is only onepart of the college experience."

Ernest J. Wilson III, who entered Harvard in1966 at what may be considered the height of theAmerican Civil Rights movement, set out to createan active social life for himself from day one.Wilson eventually joined the Harvard Lampoon, TheCrimson, the Fly Club and, by senior year, waselected Class Marshal.

Wilson, now a professor of political science atthe University of Michigan, is optimisticconcerning the future of black students atHarvard. Although Wilson acknowledged in a recentessay the difficulties of dealing with stereotypeson campus, he emphasized the importance ofindividual action and initiative.

"Whites acted as if we were a black tabula rasaready to be filled with New England education andhigh culture," said Wilson, "[But] we changedHarvard as Harvard changed us."

In contrast, today, with less of theinstitutional racism faced by Du Bois and Wilson,you can come to Harvard and just be a Harvardstudent, according to Price. "Being Black doesn'tnecesarily affect your Harvard career, only if youelect to have a particular black experience," saysPrice.

Early black Radcliffe students such as CarolineBond Day '19 faced the challenge of being black inwhat was virtually a white woman's academic world.

Today, according to Fraser, any remnants of theracism day encountered are subtle and, althoughthey may linger, Fraser was optimistic that suchprejudice is diminishing.

This article relied on sources drawn fromthe anthology "Blacks at Harvard: A DocumentaryHistory of African American Experience at Harvardand Radcliffe."

"We have felt from the beginning the necessityof not including colored men...of not compellingmen of different races to reside together," saidLowell in a letter to an alumna at the time of thedecision.

The Harvard community--students, staff, alumni;even the Board of Overseers--were shocked.

"Deep is the... shame and humiliation ofHarvard's recent surrender to Bourbon South," saidDu Bois of the measure.

In 1922, 145 Harvard first-years, guided by agroup of white upperclassmen, signed a petitionprotesting Lowell's prejudicial policy.

"If any young man should decline to comebecause of this prejudice against some possiblecomrade, I would say that the college was well ridof so narrow minded a youth," said one outragedgraduate of the policy.

By the next year the Harvard Board ofOverseers, which included future presidentFranklin D. Roosevelt, unanimously overruledLowell's exclusion of blacks from first-yeardorms. The reversal was intended, according to theBoard, as an appeal to the ideal of "equalopportunity for all, regardless of race orreligion."

Over the course of the next 70 years, clashesconcerning the function of race on campus haveexpanded to include scholarly debate and broadsocial activism. In the 1960s, the Afro-AmericanStudies Department was created, attracting suchluminaries as Professor of Afro-American Studiesand History Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Professorof Afro-American Studies and Philosophy K. AnthonyAppiah and W.E.B. DuBois Professor of theHumanities Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Now, unlike in previous generations, studentsat the College describe being black at Harvard asmore of an individual experience.

"I definitely know that every person is not thesame," says Mark A. Price '99, the president ofthe Black Men's Forum, "Taking part in the blackcommunity, attending black parties, sitting in the`black table' gives me a different collegeexperience than other people. But that is only onepart of the college experience."

Ernest J. Wilson III, who entered Harvard in1966 at what may be considered the height of theAmerican Civil Rights movement, set out to createan active social life for himself from day one.Wilson eventually joined the Harvard Lampoon, TheCrimson, the Fly Club and, by senior year, waselected Class Marshal.

Wilson, now a professor of political science atthe University of Michigan, is optimisticconcerning the future of black students atHarvard. Although Wilson acknowledged in a recentessay the difficulties of dealing with stereotypeson campus, he emphasized the importance ofindividual action and initiative.

"Whites acted as if we were a black tabula rasaready to be filled with New England education andhigh culture," said Wilson, "[But] we changedHarvard as Harvard changed us."

In contrast, today, with less of theinstitutional racism faced by Du Bois and Wilson,you can come to Harvard and just be a Harvardstudent, according to Price. "Being Black doesn'tnecesarily affect your Harvard career, only if youelect to have a particular black experience," saysPrice.

Early black Radcliffe students such as CarolineBond Day '19 faced the challenge of being black inwhat was virtually a white woman's academic world.

Today, according to Fraser, any remnants of theracism day encountered are subtle and, althoughthey may linger, Fraser was optimistic that suchprejudice is diminishing.

This article relied on sources drawn fromthe anthology "Blacks at Harvard: A DocumentaryHistory of African American Experience at Harvardand Radcliffe."

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